I have, to put it mildly, been somewhat astonished at the heated reaction that my blog post “Do Institutions Matter?” has provoked, culminating in a letter from the Hungarian State Secretary for Communication, Zoltán Kovács, to The American Interest complaining about my piece and contesting various points in it. I’m now one of the few Americans to have a web site in Hungarian devoted to my mistakes! In many ways, the vehemence of the response and the extremely uncivil comments that Hungarians have made about each other is a disturbing confirmation that something has gone badly off track with Hungarian democracy.
Let me begin by responding to the criticisms of Mr. Kovács and other commenters about my misunderstanding of the new Hungarian constitution. I readily admit that I made some factual errors, for example that term limits apply to ordinary and not Constitutional Court judges, and for misspelling Fidesz. I’m sorry for this and will be more careful in future fact-checking (this was after all just an unedited blog post).
However, it seems to me that Minister Kovács and the others completely missed the point of my article. Its bottom line was to say that, on paper, the new constitution doesn’t look that bad. As I noted in the post, a classic British Westminster system centralizes far more power in a prime minister and the majority party in Parliament than does the new Hungarian basic law. The problem, I suggested, was not in the formal allocation of powers, but rather in the way that the Orbán government was using those powers. The threat to democracy in Hungary is thus not new institutions per se, but an old political culture that is re-emerging.
(Even on the narrow point about Hungarian judges, my critics missed the more important underlying issue that the Fidesz government has been busy weakening judicial independence through its creation of a National Judicial Office controlled by parliament and hence answerable to the party. The attempt to charge a former Prime Minister with the crime of economic mismanagement is more worthy of Yanukovich’s Ukraine than Hungary. A true rule of law demands much more institutional autonomy for the judiciary that this.)
The Orbán government has undertaken a number of measures that suggest that it doesn’t really understand the norms that must underlie a healthy liberal democracy. Using its supermajority in the Diet, it has enacted not just the new Constitution but a flurry of new laws, almost all of which centralize power in its own hands. Affected institutions include the National Bank of Hungary, controlled now by a Monetary Council largely in turn loyal to Fidesz–what’s gotten the IMF upset. The supervisory powers of formerly independent watchdogs like the Budgetary Council, parliamentary ombudsmen, and the Health Insurance Inspectorate have all been either eliminated or reduced. Local governments have lost powers to the center with regard to education, health, and disaster preparedness, while control over gymnasia in the capital has been put under a new government regulator and the autonomy of universities curtailed. The autonomy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, as well as public foundations in the arts and sciences, is being more closely controlled by the government.
Any one of these measures in themselves might be justified had they been the product of a prolonged and open public debate. But this huge mass of new legislation was passed hurriedly to take advantage of the government’s present supermajority, giving potential critics no time to even digest the content of the laws. In many cases, Fidesz, which won only a bare majority of the popular vote (52.7%), has embedded its own policy preferences in ways that will be very hard to undo should it lose power in the future. A liberal democracy is not just about majority rule; its proper functioning rests (as it has in England) on the respect that majorities show towards minorities, and the ability of the society as a whole to engage in informed deliberation. (Not, by the way, something that’s in very good shape here in the US at the moment.)
I said in my earlier post that the Orbán government displays an “authoritarian thin skin” and this is something that I would doubly underline. Perhaps the most disturbing thing happening in Hungary is the centralization of power in a government-controlled Media Authority, and its intimidation of opposition media. Taking away the frequency of an opposition-aligned radio station is something right out of Hugo Chavez’s playbook.
A number of other commentators on my earlier post questioned the premise of my piece, “Do Institutions Matter?” Let me say clearly, of course they matter. Modern political order and economic prosperity rest on good institutions, which was the subject of my recent The Origins of Political Order (which, incidentally, has a whole chapter on medieval Hungary and will be published in Hungarian in the near future). The point I was trying to make is that sometimes the exact specification of democratic institutions matter much less than the informal modes of behavior of political actors. Systems like the British one with few checks and balances can nonetheless be run moderately, while others with lots of checks can behave at best decisively and at worst tyrannically. The kinds of institutional changes being made in Hungary now will matter, but what matters much more is the way that the government is using its present powers. Confiscating private pensions may be legally within the authority of many governments, but it is very unwise policy.
I first visited Budapest May 1989 while accompanying then Secretary of State James Baker while working for the US State Department as a young political appointee in the Bush administration. I remember this as a moment of incredible excitement, as Poland and Hungary seemed poised to leave the Communist camp and become genuine democracies. The last time I visited Budapest, Ferenc Gyurcsány was prime minister and I could well appreciate the degree of disgust that people felt toward the government at the time. The degree of political polarization anger evident then was very disturbing, and I could see why people wanted a change. But governments do not rebuild trust by acting the way that Orbán and Fidesz have.
Hungary has always represented two very positive things to me: first, a small country that has produced a disproportionate number of great physicists, mathematicians, composers, artists, writers, and intellectuals. Second, it was a model for the former Communist world in its rapid transition to democracy and a market economy. Indeed, in 1222, seven years after the English Magna Carta, the Hungarian King Andrew II was forced by his nobles to accept the Golden Bull (Aranybulla), which was one of first examples of constitutional limits being placed on the powers of a European monarch. (You can read more about this in my new book.) So it would be both a surprise and a very great shame if Hungary were to take the lead once again, but in the wrong direction toward the incremental dismantling of democracy and constitutional government.